NHLPA could not move forward under Goodenow

OTTAWA -- In the brave new world of the National Hockey League, Bob Goodenow is yesterday's news.

It was the case long before Goodenow surprised the hockey world Thursday by announcing that he was stepping aside as executive director of the players' union. The sometimes emotional news conference, attended by Goodenow and his successor Ted Saskin against a backdrop of polite praise from around the hockey world, merely confirmed the inevitable.

A battle as long and ugly as the one just completed between the players and the owners does not come without causalities, and Goodenow is one.

"When it feels good and it looks good, go ahead and do it, and that's what we've done," Goodenow said.

There will be much debate, most of it useless, over whether Goodenow jumped, or was pushed from his perch, atop the players' association.

"It was mutual," NHLPA executive committee member Vincent Damphousse told the Canadian Press late Thursday.

If that is indeed the case, it speaks to Goodenow's unwavering dedication to the players' cause and of the players' own understanding that to move forward with Goodenow at the helm would be to drag an anchor into the future.

"We knew there was going to be a transition," Goodenow said. "Looking into the future, this was the right decision to be made and the right time to make it."

The new collective bargaining agreement ratified by the players and owners last week was not Goodenow's deal. He railed against the salary cap from the outset, telling his players they could win the war against the owners, but it might take two NHL seasons to do so. The players had no stomach for such a protracted battle, and when it became apparent the players were willing to accept a salary cap when the executive committee met in Pebble Beach, Calif., in March, Goodenow essentially became irrelevant to the process.

That he sat at a table in Toronto last week and grimly insisted he would stay on through the remaining time on his contract (somewhere between two and three years at $2.5 million per annum), means little.

What else was he going to say? That "The players have ratified a deal that makes me sick and I think will lead them to ruination, but I'm going to stick around for the cash and the free Tim Hortons coffee.?" No. That's never been Goodenow's style. He is not a figurehead, a conciliator. He is a fighter, a boardroom brawler and master of brinksmanship.

These are the characteristics that made him the perfect choice when he first arrived at the players' association in 1990, and two years later when he took over for the disgraced Alan Eagleson.

"You ask me if this is a personal failure. No, I don't believe it's a failure at all," Goodenow said.

Later during the press conference, Goodenow broke down briefly in describing the latter days of negotiations and a personal matter that took him away from the proceedings.

"My mother passed away and I did have some days where I was pre-occupied," Goodenow said.

But as much as he was at odds with the executive committee and indeed many in the membership during the 310-day lockout, his legacy is assured. Player salaries rose almost seven-fold under Goodenow's tenure.

"He's done a helluva job for this organization," one GM in Ottawa for Saturday's draft said Thursday, "no matter what anyone around the league says."

"It's sad when people judge a career or a long run by the tail end of it," added New York Islanders captain Michael Peca. "There were a lot of great years in there for the Association. He's left us in good shape. But I think moving forward, it's a new system and a new era, and I think everybody feels that maybe there are some other people to lead that charge."

Indeed, if ever there was a time for the league and its players to bury the past it's now.
For the first time the fortunes of players and owners are linked with salaries rising and falling under a salary cap based on league-wide revenues. Goodenow, to his credit, understood the players' future is tied to the health of that partnership regardless of his feelings about such a partnership, and stepped aside. In his place is a man who might well be the anti-Goodenow.

"We're probably different people. That's to be expected. Maybe we have some different style elements to the way we do things," said Saskin, who's been with the union since 1992.

Had Saskin and his counterpart with the league, chief legal officer Bill Daly been left to their own designs, this deal would have been done by last Christmas. It was not to be. Now Saskin must tread the fine line between adversary and full-blown partner in representing the players' interests. In many ways, his role will be more difficult than the one fulfilled by Goodenow.

"I think he's a superstar," Damphousse said of Saskin.

OK, that might be an exaggeration. But there is little doubt the bookish and soft-spoken Saskin represents the kind of departure needed to give this new partnership a chance at succeeding, and he should make it a seamless transition from chief architect of labor peace to chief caretaker of that peace.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.